Jing-Jin-Ji At Ten: Urban Planning Under Xi

Publication: China Brief Volume: 24 Issue: 5

Beijing and Tianjin at night, taken from the International Space Sation (Source: Wikipedia)

Executive Summary:

  • The Jing-Jin-Ji region’s integrated development embodies Xi Jinping’s vision for the PRC and is one of his strategic priorities.
  • Planning documents from the past decade detail ambitions to leverage the potential of this region’s 110 million people by designing a global center for innovation and high-end industrial production.
  • Many western organizations and cities have been instrumental in assisting with the design of the region’s strategies, unintentionally aiding the PRC’s ability to compete in critical and strategic domains with the United States.
  • Governance and coordination issues will challenge the regional initiative, at least in part because massive infrastructure spending underpins much of the project. And Beijing has yet to prove that innovation can be imposed in a top-down way.


This week marks the decennial of General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Xi Jinping’s visit to the Beijing Municipal Planning Exhibition Hall. There, he put forward a five-point request for promoting the development and management of Beijing, with a view to adjusting and relieving the “non-capital core functions (非首都核心功能)” of the city (Beijing Planning Exhibition Hall, February 23). The following day, he chaired a symposium, raising the realization of the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei coordinated development as “a major national strategy (重大国家战略)” (Chinamil, February 26). The plans are still in an early stage of implementation, but the ambitions and contours of the project are now clear.

Cities at the prefecture level and above are the principal engine of the national economy. They account for around two-thirds of total GDP, much more than their proportion of the 60 percent of the population living in urban settings. Beijing anchors an urban agglomeration that is set to house as many as 130 million people under current plans. These plans seek to strip Beijing down to its core functions, deepen its integration with the port city of Tianjin, and foster positive externalities for the wider region of northern Hebei Province. A critical node of these plans is the techno-utopian city rising out of the wetlands south of Beijing known as Xiong’an New Area (雄安新区), which embodies a turn in the PRC’s approach to urban development from speed (as was the case for Shenzhen) to quality, and is central to making Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei into “a pioneer and demonstration area for Chinese-style modernization” (SCIO, December 26, 2023). Ultimately, Beijing seeks to leverage a massive labor shed of around 30 to 50 million people to help the region become “an international scientific and technological innovation center” (Jing-Jin-Ji, September 10, 2023).

The Development of Jing-Jin-Ji

The Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region is one of three in the PRC to have its own “Coordinated Regional Development Strategy (区域协调发展战略).” The region, also known as “Jing-Jin-Ji (京津冀),” [2] is not the country’s preeminent region—it is less developed than the Yangtze River Delta or the Pearl River Delta—despite housing the political capital. It is also shaped primarily by centralized national economic and urban policies. These are partly intended to alleviate imbalances and inequalities which have been a policy concern for decades. However, the urban clusters themselves remain sites of acute inequality.

Over the past ten years, several major policies and political events have marked the development of this regional initiative. The February 2014 symposium which generated the concept was been followed by 75 policies and plans (政策规划) up to March 2022 (Jing-Jin-Ji, accessed February 29), a third of which are dedicated to science and technology innovation, and nine of which focus on city governance. [3] There have also been two subsequent symposia. At the second in early 2019, Xi urged officials “to maintain historical patience and strategic determination and do a good job in this historic project.” At the most recent one in May 2023, Xi announced that “in just six years, Xiong’an New Area has gone from nothing to something … which is a miracle (短短6年里,雄安新区从无到有…堪称奇迹)” (State Council, December 26, 2023). The central government also set up a leading small group and an expert advisory committee.

This last symposium was accompanied by the unveiling of a New Implementation Plan for Coordinated Development of Industries in Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei Region (一图读懂京津冀产业协同发展实施方案) (MIIT, May 23, 2023). This specifies eight key areas of focus, which read like a laundry list of PRC strategic goals and industrial policy priorities. To name a few: supporting the development of advanced manufacturing clusters; enhancing the advanced level of industrial foundation and industrial chains in the key sectors of new energy vehicles, biopharmaceuticals, and the industrial Internet; and improving the regional industrial innovation system. It is not for nothing that when, on the eve of the Year of the Dragon, Xi took the swift 30 minute journey from Beijing to Tianjin, the train he rode was called Rejuvenation (复兴) (Xinhua, February 4).

The top-down effects of these plans are clear. According to officials figures, region’s total economic output reached Renminbi (RMB) 10.4 trillion ($1.46 trillion), almost double the figure in 2013 before the initiative had begun (People’s Daily, February 26). The evacuation of non-capital functions has seen Xiong’an New Area attract 292 “key projects.” Over 3,000 general manufacturing enterprises have left Beijing. 1,000 markets and logistics centers have been closed or upgraded. Air quality has significantly improved, with average PM2.5 concentration was down 57.3 percent in 2023 compared with that in 2014. Beijing tops the national list in terms of research and experimental development (R&D) expenditure, as well as in invention patents (NBS, December 28, 2023). The Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei Regional Development Index reached 145.0 in 2022 (from a 2014 base of 100), driven predominantly by innovation and green development. [4]

Tales of Two Cities and CCP Self-Strengthening

The cliché of a “Tale of Two Cities (双城记)” frequently appears in writing about Beijing and Tianjin’s deepening integration (QStheory, February 23). Dickens is never mentioned, but the paradoxes and contradictions of his novel’s opening sentence are alive and well in the “new chapter (谱写新篇章)” that is being written this post-revolutionary world (Beijing Municipal DRC, February 23). The plan describes a model of “R&D in Beijing, manufacturing in Tianjin and Hebei (北京研发、津冀制造),” or as streamlining the process of bringing innovation “from the laboratory to the production line (推动更多科技成果从实验室走向生产线).” Tianjin has already built 15 national key laboratories and several research and development institutions either tied to or spun out of universities from both places have cemented linkages. The Tianjin Binhai-Zhongguancun Science and Technology Park, for instance, has accumulated more than 4,900 registered enterprises, including 259 national science and technology-based small and medium-sized enterprises and 193 national high-tech enterprises (QStheory, February 23). [5] Meanwhile, there is an enormous amount of investment pouring into national champions, little giants, and—above all—infrastructure.

The literary allusion gestures to an understudied aspect of the PRC’s megacities—their western influence. This stretches back to the earliest days of plans for the region. The “Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei Blue Book: Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei Development Report (2023)” report attributes the concept of “global centers of science, technology, and innovation” to an article in America Online magazine (also known as Omni, or AOL; 美国在线) in 2000. This article argued that such places would require local universities and research institutes to train skilled workers or develop new technologies, well-established enterprises and transnational corporations to provide expertise and bring economic stability, a strong start-up culture, and access to capital (Jing-Jin-Ji, September 10, 2023)—all things that Beijing’s planners have been pursuing.

Beijing has solicited the assistance and expertise of a range of experts and organizations from western Europe and the United States. A Germany’s Federal (BMWi) coauthored a report on “Power System Flexibility in Jing-Jin-Ji and Germany” alongside a leading Chinese think on formulating renewable energy and energy transition policies (Energy Research Institute of the NDRC, August 2020). Earlier on, the Paulson Institute published the report “China’s Next Opportunity: Sustainable Economic Transition—How Jing-Jin-Ji Can Lead The Way” alongside another government-funded think tank (Paulson Institute/CCIEE, October 2015). As Paulson writes in the foreword, they would “provide in-depth analysis of specific industry sectors in the Jing-Jin-Ji region, along with specific recommendations for transition strategies for these sectors.” This should come as little surprise, given recent coverage of McKinsey’s involvement in crafting PRC strategy (for instance, Financial Times, February 23).

A recent exhibition at the Beijing Planning Exhibition Hall even uses the phrase “A Tale of Two Cities” to refer to an installation about its collaboration with Copenhagen (with which Beijing has been twinned since 2012) on the idea of a “sponge city,” as well as other water-related matters and energy-saving buildings (Beijing Planning Exhibition Hall, February 26). Intercity relationships have been a longstanding aspect of the CCP’s United Front work (Stealth War, May 12, 2023). In the words of Li Xiaojiang, former head of the China Academy of Urban Planning and Design, “the core of integrated development of ‘Jing-Jin-ji’ lies in the concepts of optimization, adjustment and streamlining, all for the sake of pursuing healthier development” (People’s Daily Online, February 26, 2019). Such technocratic jargon sits well with city mayors and planners the world over, but the extent to which western expertise is actively enlisted in helping finesse developments underpinning its rise as a science and technology superpower likely concerns those in Washington, D.C. [6] The Jing-Jin-Ji strategy rests on central government approval, and clearly operates with Beijing’s broader strategies in mind.

Beijing may have looked abroad for solutions, but the “big-city disease (大城市病)” it has sought to resolve has proven to be chronic. The digitally integrated “smart city” concept—another western import, now adopted in forms such as Alibaba’s “City Brain”—is embodied in Xiong’an. But government reports detail significant aspects that still need to be addressed. The Blue Book report worries that Beijing specifically does not have a sufficiently high enterprise innovation level, that investment in basic research is still relatively low, and that industry-university-research cooperation needs to be deepened (Jing-Jin-Ji, September 10, 2023). Meanwhile, the wider region still suffers from disparities in innovation and a “core-periphery” imbalance that hinders the cluster’s ability to be competitive on the global stage. Green and digital economies have developed more slowly than hoped and governance problems have obstructed effective institutional mechanisms for coordinated development. This is critical, as the North China Plain is not only one of the most densely populated regions in the world but is also the world’s most at-risk place for climate change-related extreme heat [7]

Jing-Jin-Ji is an attempt at a new style of urban planning in the PRC, but fostering innovation is difficult to achieve. Veteran urban planner Liu Taige (刘太格) has noted this, as well as arguing against applying the formula for other PRC cities to Jing-Jin-Ji. Under this formula, “for the sake of GDP, local leaders require a major project to start before the end of the year. The time constraints will then make the science of planning much less effective. In addition, in most cities in mainland China, the departments of land, transport, planning, environment, construction and development and reform each come up with their own plans, and there are contradictions in the interests of the departments themselves, which bring about inefficiency in management and implementation” (Caijing, June 5, 2017). More recently, Liu has indicated that the plans for Xiong’an in particular may be insufficient (Epoch Times, May 14, 2023).


The Jing-Jin-Ji region, now ten years old, symoblizes the body politic under Xi Jinping. It is attempting to steer a population exceeding that of any European country to support Xi’s personal ambitions. These come with the baggage that attends many of Xi’s policies. Should these plans come to fruition, the city cluster could be among the world’s most dynamic urban regions. But by mid-century, when many of these schemes have their putative deadlines, the PRC may be in a very different place.


[1] Lynch, Kevin. Good City Form. MIT Press, 1984.

[2] The “Jing” is from “Beijing,” the “Jin” from “Tianjin,” and the “Ji” is the old name for what is now much of northern Hebei.

[3] Some of the more notable relevant plans and documents not mentioned in the piece include:

  • The New-Type Urbanization Plan (国家新型城镇化规划), which signaled a shift from land-based urbanization to a more human-centered approach (March 16, 2014);
  • The “Outline of the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei Synergistic Development Plan (京津冀协同发展规划纲要) (April, 2015);
  • The 13th Five-Year Plan of Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei (which included 12 special plans for Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei land, urban and rural areas, water conservancy, and health) in 2016;
  • The “Outline of the National Informatization Development Strategy (国家信息化发展战略纲要)”;
  • The “Overall Plan of the City of Beijing (2016-2035) (北京城市总体规划(2016年—2035年))” (Fall, 2017).

[4] Theses figures ought to be taken with a grain of salt. A cursory look at the same graph for the years 2019–2022 sees different numbers in each instance. It is unclear whether this is on account of a constantly adjusted methodology or a retrospective tweaking of the data. Though it should be noted that NBS data is not known for its objectivity or accuracy. See: https://www.stats.gov.cn/sj/zxfb/202312/t20231227_1945819.html; https://www.stats.gov.cn/sj/zxfb/202302/t20230203_1901694.html; https://www.stats.gov.cn/sj/zxfb/202312/t20231227_1945819.html; https://www.stats.gov.cn/sj/zxfb/202302/t20230203_1900862.html

[5] Haihe Laboratories (海河实验室), which focuses on Brain-Computer Interaction and Human-Computer Integration in Tianjin, was recently discussed in China Brief: “Brain-Computer Interfaces: Medical Miracles and Innovation Policy,” January 5.

[6] See for instance, Rahm Emanuel. The Nation City: Why Mayors Are Now Running the World. Penguin Randomhouse, 2020. (See also, LRB, June 18, 2020)

[7] Wu Weiping & Piper Gaubatz, The Chinese City, (Routledge 2020), p.322